In March 2007 a gold coin minted in German East Africa in 1916 was sold for £1,400 by the London auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb. Sometimes known as the ‘Tabora pound’, this coin has an interesting history.
At the beginning of 1916 the Governor of German East Africa, Dr Heinrich Schnee, was confident that the colony’s small army would continue to hold the Allied forces at bay. His immediate problem was the shortage of metallic currency caused by hoarding and the impossibility of getting fresh supplies of coins from Germany because of the Royal Navy’s blockade. That same blockade prevented the export of gold to Germany and the Governor decided to use Tanganyikan gold to mint coins locally.
An improvised mint was therefore established in the railway workshops at Tabora by a German mining engineer, Friedrich Schumacher. His total workforce was eleven men – two Indians, two Africans and seven Singhalese goldsmiths recruited from Dar es Salaam. A blacksmith’s forge was used to melt the gold, while a mill for rolling sheets of rubber was adapted to turn it into strips. A small hand press punched out ‘blanks’ from the metal strips and the coins were struck, one by one, by a hand-operated pipe-bending machine.
The pre-war coinage had a portrait of the German Emperor William II on the obverse (head) and the German eagle on the reverse (tail). Concerned that a locally produced version of the Imperial face might not be to the Kaiser’s liking, the Governor held a competition for an alternative. The winning design, by a German railway worker, showed a charging elephant against a mountainous background (possibly intended to represent Kilimanjaro). One of the Singhalese goldsmiths engraved the dies for both obverse and reverse. The eagle was retained for the obverse, which also had the date ‘1916’ and the mint mark T (for Tabora), while the reverse was inscribed ‘Deutsch Ost Afrika 15 Rupien’. Each coin weighed 7.168 grammes and was 75% pure gold.
The Governor’s proclamation authorising the new coinage was signed at Tabora on 15 April 1916 and production began on the same day. Using the primitive hand-operated machine, the small workforce produced 6,395 gold coins in the period to 30 June 1916. At this point the machine broke down and the task of striking the coins was transferred to Lulanguru, fifteen miles west of Tabora. A steam-driven press designed to extract oil from groundnuts was brought into use and the rate of production was almost doubled. In the nine weeks to 31 August 1916, when production ceased, 9,803 gold coins were minted.
During the four months the mint was operating, the military situation changed completely. The Allied offensive was finally launched. General Smuts captured Moshi at the beginning of April and reached Dodoma on 29 July, cutting the Tabora/Dar railway. Meanwhile the Belgian army advanced from the Congo and occupied Tabora on 19 September. As the Belgians approached, Schumacher buried the precious dies and delivered the last batch of 1,500 coins to the bank in Tabora. Schumacher was captured by the Belgians, but managed to conceal forty of the coins. He was sent to England for repatriation to Germany as a non-combatant. While in London, he was questioned by the police at New Scotland Yard, where thirty nine of the forty coins were taken from him.
The Tabora 15 rupee was only in circulation for a relatively short time. Many were hoarded or kept as souvenirs. As over sixteen thousand were produced, it is hardly a great numismatic rarity. However, it only appears rarely at auctions, hence the handsome price at the March sale. If you are lucky enough to own one, or are offered one to purchase, be warned – there are forgeries about!
The above is based on an article by D.D.Yonge which appeared in Tanganyika Notes and Records Number 62, March 1964 John Sankey